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MODERN ART AND IDEAS EIGHT: 1962–1974

SETTING THE SCENE

This guide explores Minimalism and Conceptualism, two artistic movements that developed during the 1960s mainly in the United States, largely in response to prior art movements. Minimalism developed in direct reaction to the critical and popular success of Abstract Expressionist painting over the previous decade, while Conceptual art fundamentally challenged traditional notions of visual art by emphasizing ideas over objects.

  • Ask your students to consider what makes something a work of art. What is art supposed to accomplish? Who is it for? Where does one encounter art? Have each student write a list of criteria.
  • Divide the class into small groups to discuss and debate their criteria. Ask your students to create a list of criteria they have in common and a list of criteria they disagree about. Have each group share their lists with the class and write them on the board for the class to review.

ORIGINS OF MINIMALISM: "WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU SEE"

The early 1960s brought about a significant shift in American artistic production, largely in reaction to the critical and popular success of Abstract Expressionism (for more on Abstract Expressionism, see Modern Art and Ideas 7: Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art). In response to this earlier artistic movement, which celebrated personal and expressive painterly gestures, Minimalist artists produced pared-down three-dimensional objects devoid of representational content. Their new vocabulary of simplified, geometric forms made from humble industrial materials challenged traditional notions of craftsmanship, the illusion of spatial depth in painting, and the idea that a work of art must be one of a kind.

Frank Stella: The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II, enamel on canvas, 2.31×3.37 m, 1959 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Frank Stella: The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II, enamel on canvas, 2.31×3.37 m, 1959 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York

  • Show your students the image of The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II, by Frank Stella, and ask them to describe what they see.
  • Ask your students to describe the relationship between the lines on the canvas and the edges of the canvas.

Concentric black bands and white lines outline each other in two inverted U shapes. Stella painted the bands parallel to the canvas’s edges, creating a direct relationship between the painting as an object—in this case a rectangular canvas—and what is rendered on its surface. In an attempt to shift painting from two-dimensions to three, Stella stretched this canvas over an unusually deep frame—nearly three inches in depth.

  • Inform your students that Stella used commercial black enamel paint and a housepainter’s brush to make The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II. The thick black bands are the same width as the paintbrush he used. Ask your students to consider how Stella created the white lines.
  • Inform your students that the thin white lines are not painted; they are gaps between the black bands in which the raw canvas is visible.

Stella identified his materials and process with those of a laborer. He rejected expressive, painterly gestures and the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional picture plane in favor of an overall structure that recognized the canvas as both a surface and a three-dimensional object.About his manner of painting, Stella famously said, "My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there….What you see is what you see."

  • Ask your students to consider how the artist’s statement relates to The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II, using their knowledge of Stella’s materials and process.
  • Students may ask about the work’s title. Have them define marriage, reason, and squalor. Ask them to consider how these words relate to the formal qualities of the work. How does the title affect the way they understand the work?
  • Ask your students to revisit their lists of criteria for a work of art. Does The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II fulfill any of their criteria? Ask them if they would like to refine or expand their lists.

ORIGINS OF CONCEPTUALISM: MARCEL DUCHAMP

Conceptual art, which emerged in the late 1960s, emphasized ideas and theoretical practices rather than the creation of visual forms. While Minimalists stripped away representational content and even craftsmanship from their art, Conceptual artists went further still, insisting that there was no need for art objects at all. In 1967, the artist Sol LeWitt gave the new genre its name in his essay "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," in which he wrote, "The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product." [Sol LeWitt, "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," Artforum 5, no. 10 (June 1967): 80.]

Marcel Duchamp: In Advance of the Broken Arm, wood and galvanized-iron snow shovel, h. 1.32 m, August 1964; 4th version, after lost original of November 1915 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/Estate of Marcel Duchamp, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Marcel Duchamp: In Advance of the Broken Arm, wood and galvanized-iron snow shovel, h. 1.32 m, August 1964; 4th version, after lost original of November 1915 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/Estate of Marcel Duchamp, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York

  • Show your students the image of In Advance of the Broken Arm, by Marcel Duchamp. Ask them to describe what they see. Does it fulfill any of their criteria for a work of art? Why or why not?
  • Inform your students that Duchamp did not handcraft this work of art but, rather, he selected a shovel, hung it from the ceiling of his studio, and called it art. To indicate that the idea was conceived by him but that the shovel itself was not made by him, he called the first version, made in 1915, In Advance of the Broken Arm /(from) Marcel Duchamp.
  • Ask your students to consider how this work relates to their definition of art, particularly with regard to materials and the role of the artist.

Duchamp’s work was perhaps the most significant art-historical precedent for Conceptual art. Claiming to be "more interested in the ideas than the final product," starting in 1913. Duchamp challenged accepted notions of art by selecting mass-produced, functional objects from everyday life and designating them as art. [Marcel Duchamp, quoted in Roberta Smith, "Conceptual Art," in Concepts of Modern Art, ed. Nikos Stangos (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1994), 256.] He called these readymades. Duchamp’s readymades were aimed at shifting viewers’ engagement with works of art from what he called the "retinal" (pleasing to the eye) to the "intellectual" (in "the service of the mind"), subverting the traditional notion that beauty is a defining characteristic of art. [Marcel Duchamp, quoted in H. H. Arnason and Marla F. Prather, History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography, 4th ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998), 274.] This is the fourth version of In Advance of the Broken Arm. Because the objects Duchamp selected to be readymades were mass-produced, he did not consider any one readymade to be the original.

  • Show your students images of The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II and In Advance of the Broken Arm. Ask them to draw comparisons between the materials used to make these two works. How do these materials (enamel house paint and a shovel) support the artists’ intentions? How do the artists’ roles in making these works compare? How do the titles contribute to the interpretation of these two works?

ACTIVITY

Wordplay: What’s in a Name?

Duchamp’s title, In Advance of the Broken Arm, refers playfully to the function of a snow shovel: to remove snow from the ground. Duchamp’s title assumes that without the shovel to remove the snow, one might slip and fall and even break an arm. The artist frequently assigned humorous titles to his readymades. In 1916, he turned a urinal upside down, signed it with a pseudonym, and titled it Fountain, to the dismay of audiences at the time. Such wordplay has an important role in Conceptual art as well.

Divide your class into small groups. Have each group select three objects from around the classroom (such as a chair, a ball, or a book) to designate as readymade works of art. Ask each group to brainstorm a list of titles for their readymades. When they are finished, have them take turns presenting their titled readymades to the entire class, explaining why they selected these titles and whether wordplay or humor played a role.

Duchamp’s first readymade is a bicycle wheel attached to a kitchen stool. To explore Bicycle Wheel (1913), please refer to Modern Art and Ideas 5: Dada and Surrealism. To hear the artist speak about this work, listen to the MoMA Audio: Modern Voices program (http://moma.org/visit_moma/audio.html).

Grove Art Online: Suggested Reading

Below is a list of selected articles, which provide more information on the specific topics discussed in the lesson.

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